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10 ways to reduce wean-to-finish mortality

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During the Iowa Swine Day webinar series, SVC veterinarians detailed the importance of leading by example.

Across the pork industry, an estimated 30 to 35% of pigs born die before reaching the market, creating significant economic losses for farmers. Research shows that if the industry could increase the wean-to-finish survival by just 1%, the nation's swine industry would gain an estimated 1.2 million pigs a year.

But improving wean-to-finish productivity on farms is easier said than done, says two veterinarians with Swine Vet Center, based in St. Peter, Minn. Writing down a new protocol for employees to implement and walking out the door doesn't solve ongoing issues onsite. It takes leading by example.

"Being there with them hand-in-hand, and explaining the whys behind it, for me is really important," says Chris Sievers. "If they understand why an item or task is important, they are a lot more likely to help you achieve it. We all are here essentially for one reason, the pig, so we want to do the right thing for the pig."

During the Iowa Swine Day webinar series last month, Sievers along with Ryan Strobel, shared 10 ways to reduce wean-to-finish mortality and how to implement them.

Before beginning benchmarking, Sievers says producers need to have an end goal in mind. They also need to have access to data systems that are able to accurately measure, track and compare production stats year by year, month by month and group by group, to see if improvements are being made.

Looking at data within the MetaFarms systems, he says wean-to-finish mortalities have been trending in the right direction but are still averaging around 6%. Examining nursery close-out distribution, the average is 2.5% for mortality, but the farms range from the worst 10% at 6.4% to the top 10% of producers at 0.95%.

"As you're going through your records and your close outs, this is a great way to compare back to whatever recordkeeping system you're using to compare yourself to the different percentiles and set yourself goals of, we would like to be in the top 80% of the MetaFarms database for mortality, or feed conversion, average daily gain," Sievers says.

Start on the right foot, right pig with health status, wean age
While all-in, all-out is the ideal scenario, Strobel recognizes that can't always happen when packing space is backed up, flows are changing, and producers are forced to co-mingle more times than not.

"All in all out, at a bare minimum, you have to get it done by room," Strobel says. "I don't want different age pigs in the same room, and obviously by barn would better and by site would be ideal, and there's a lot of diseases that specifically that's important for."

Before pigs arrive, sites should be:

  • Degreased, specifically if there has been a disease challenge
  • Hot water washed
  • Inspected by another person for thoroughness
  • Dried, disinfected and dried again
  • White-washed with hydrated lime and water

Waterers should also be thoroughly cleaned out. Strobel says battery-powered leaf blowers work well for this task. Make sure to clean all the water lines in between turns. Have brooder heaters set up, tested and ready to go before pigs show up, especially in the winter. Keep heat lamps working and check them daily. Get maintenance done on all equipment before going into harvest or fall.

Flow plan
The goal for everyone involved should be getting as many high-quality and healthy weaned pig as possible into the barn, Sievers says and that comes down to strong communication between the sow farm and the finishers.

"Ideally, if I was a wean-to-finish guy only, I'd love to see a pig, greater than 20 days of age. Those are the pigs that start better on feed, have a better transition and are greater than 12 pounds," Sievers says. "Is that always possible with the throughput we're trying to strive at sow farms? No, so we compromise, but we can't compromise too far on that."

Keeping those pigs coming in greater than 17 to 18 days of age and heavier than seven to eight pounds is best. On the health side, Sievers says reducing the virus and bacteria load in pigs coming into the barn is the most adequate way to first eliminate the disease, and second to keep it out. Questions such as does the sow farm use filtration and follow strict biosecurity protocols, disease eliminations when possible, and are they implementing a consistent vaccination program should be answered.

"We'd all love to have the perfect, optimal pig, but we all know stuff happens and so if that changes, we need to know that. We also need to know the current status, the age, the weight and the genetics. These can really impact how you set up your whole program," Sievers says. "From that point forward, is it a single source versus commingled? How long will it take to fill the barn? That's going to be really important in the fill plan and the strategy."

Vaccination program
One of the biggest issues with vaccination programs, Strobel says, is communication among the sow farm, the nursery and wean-to-finish. For example, if the sow farm switched over to a new circovirus/Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae vaccine and it didn't get executed correctly on the second booster in the nursery or if the E.coli vaccine at the sow farm didn't end up working, those actions need to be communicated.

"Making sure that all those communication items happen on a timely manner is very important, especially from a contract grower or employee standpoint downstream, if you don't get a clear communication on what that pig had and when they had it … You don't always know the exact timing of when they got it, so having a transfer sheet we've seen be very successful," Strobel says.

Vaccine execution is one area Strobel has seen production systems improve upon, but advises retraining growers and employees at least once or twice a year. He also suggests not changing vaccine programs too quickly and to be careful to not cut too many corners. For example, a producer can spend thousands of dollars on a vaccine program, but if employees or contract growers do not store the vaccines properly, then implementation will not be as effective.

"It's very important to show pictures and show labels and make sure that as an owner or a supervisor, you're staying up-to-date as labels change," Strobel says. "Again, on the execution side of things, it's just so important that we not only have the right protocol, but that it's being done every single time. I think watching and observing at a nursery at least twice a year is a good protocol, making sure the supervisor has almost unplanned visits and to watch vaccine crews, to make sure that they're not going too fast or stressing the pigs out or not changing needles. All are important factors."

Barn layout
Starting with a clean office really sets up how you are going to take care of pigs inside the barn, Strobel says. While every site has its own layout, it becomes evident pretty quickly which pens are warm and which pens get drafty. Strobel says you can use that knowledge for where to place pigs that are challenged or the pigs that are smaller.

"The amount of space will really depend on that population of that flow, anywhere from 5 to 20% of the barn we leave open depending on the flow," Strobel says.

Feed and feeding strategies
Every group of pigs can be different age, weight and genetics, and Sievers says all of those factors can impact what those early feed budgets should look like. Making sure that feed is palatable, and pigs are getting started on feed is important, especially at weaning.

"When they're on the sow, they nurse about every 45, 50 minutes and very small meals. Mom lays over, barks at them, buddy nudges them teats open, they all go and eat together," Sievers says. "That's not the scenario in the nursery or wean-to-finish barns, so we have to help them understand the feed and water access."

It can start with mat feeding, which is focused on a small amount to get them a taste of feed, or four feedings per day during chores, which Sievers says isn't as complicated as it sounds. Staff can fill the gruel bowls and mat feed upon entering the barn and then again upon exiting.

"The thing I'd stress there that the goal is to get them a taste again, not to eat their meal there," Sievers says. "We don't want to see feed left over on that mat after an hour. If that's the case, then we're wasting feed there."

Those pigs also need fresh and adequate water: one space for up to 20 head. Sievers says little drippers that drip the water real slow into the cup is a great way to help pigs understand where that water access is.

"If a pig is not doing well in their current pen in general population and not getting started on feed, we need to get them identified and pulled immediately, not tomorrow, not the next day, but immediately get them to a hospital pen with gruel," Sievers says.

Gruel feeding will also help those pigs transition from an all-liquid milk diet to a dry feed. Sievers says hydration is key and it should start with 70% feed, 30% water, then work backwards.

A consistent intake of quality feed will keep the gut flowing and promote gut health, Sievers says. Do not make too large of jumps in diet transitions. Make sure there is a proper feed budget management for the age of the pigs. Get old feed cleaned out of the feeders before dumping in new feed and ensure there is adequate water access.

Finding the right person that has people skills and pig husbandry is a challenge, Strobel says. The next challenge is finding the right balance between on-site training and trust in staff execution.

"Again, driving changes by leading by example," Strobel says. "I think every supervisor, system or company should set up a show barn. Have a good example of a clean barn, that is well-run, well-sorted and treated consistently, puts out good results."

He says it's also crucial to review flows at least once a quarter, to break down data, performance, average daily gain and feed efficiency. As employees and growers are pushed for better performance in the barns, Strobel says it is also important to provide positive feedback.

Timely individual pig care
An individual pig care platform can help identify "ABC" pigs and what really should be done with these pigs, Sievers says. An "A" pig is an acute pig, the one in the general population, that may be starting to lose their "initial bloom." Their heads may be droopy, eyes watery and are starting to get gaunt, showing initial signs of disease. With "B" pigs, body fat reserves are starting to get used away. Pigs may not be eating and drinking. The "C" pigs are the ones that are getting pulled, that are in a chronic state, and really on a negative energy platform that need extreme care and attention.

"Treatment success is extremely reliant not only on using the right antibiotic, but the timing of that treatment," Sievers says. "Treatment success of an 'A' pig is oftentimes north of 90%, depending on the disease, but if we get in that 'C' pig category, we're likely south of 50% on that pig."

Grow-finish biosecurity — Is it real?
The main objectives of biosecurity are to prevent introduction of infectious diseases into the farm, reduce the spread of diseases even within the farm, and then prevent it from spreading to uninfected farms.

Strobel says biosecurity on grow-finish sites should be centered on controlling the risk for disease introduction. That means implementing clean-dirty lines for people and equipment, disinfecting items that come into the site, checking feed bins at designated times, keeping dead removal and rendering away from the site, cleaning the market trailer and the chute between loads, keeping a visitor log and locking doors.

Just because the temperature gauge says it's 80 degrees F doesn't mean that the pig is feeling 80 degrees.

"There's a lot of pieces that go into that. The wind speed going across the pig, the humidity of the air, conduciveness from either the concrete or surface that they're lying on, and then also radiation, if we have a brooder heater, a heat lamp, that's radiating heat down on them," Sievers says. "All of them impact, what we would call the 'real feel' or the 'wind chill factor.'"

He says it's important to read the pens for clues. If pigs are piling, it is probably too cold. If they are hot, they may be spread out more. While pigs naturally like to lay together, they may exhibit other behaviors when something is wrong.

"All pigs should really have a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom, and if those areas are coming in contact or spreading into each other, either we have a disease challenge pathogen wise, that's harming that, or ventilation is off," Sievers says.

The goals of ventilation are to remove or control excess humidity, but at the same time, create a proper air exchange to bring fresh oxygen in and bring carbon monoxide out. This involves making temperature adjustments, confirming there is proper inlet speed, and ensuring fans are clean and not broken.

"The end goal really is to understand your barn and your controller," Sievers says. "Every barn is different, and it's really making daily adjustments based off pig comfort and using that pig as your gauge, not just simply going off of the numbers from the controllers."

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